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Radio review: A Spokesperson Said, and How to Read the News

19 January 2024

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A Spokesperson Said (Radio 4, Monday of last week) asked where spokespeople for issues came from

A Spokesperson Said (Radio 4, Monday of last week) asked where spokespeople for issues came from

CARDIFF University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture stands almost next door to the BBC headquarters for Wales. In the words of the presenter of A Spokesperson Said (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Neil Maggs, you could construct a pipeline that would enable students from one to enter the other without having to go on to the streets below. In two programmes this week — Maggs’s documentary, and the five-part How to Read the News (Radio 4, weekdays of last week) — we civilians learned something of what it is to inhabit this closed system, and the lessons you are taught.

Jo Fidgen’s series made the more ambitious claims: that her programmes would provide us with “tools to decode the news”. Some of these tools were practical enough to be useful: for instance, to read a news story backwards. Journalism students are taught the “inverse pyramid” approach to storytelling: start with the latest, most immediate, and striking piece of news, and then work backwards, adding more context as you proceed. That way, you grab your readers’ attention — although you run the danger of losing them by the time you get to the “why” of the story.

Less convincing was the advice given to avoid the artificial and prejudicial inflation of particular news items, to the disadvantage of others. The case-study here was the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, and the fervid media speculation that ensued. Fidgen’s antidote: to suppress one’s urge to click and reclick on particular stories, and instead distribute your engagement more widely and less prejudicially. There is only a vast arsenal of cookies and algorithms arrayed against you; so good luck with that.

As Wednesday’s episode confirmed, when a news story contains the phrase “a government source says . . .”, then you can be fairly sure that some special adviser has been shooting their mouth off. But what of the various “spokespeople” who pop up to pronounce on behalf of a “community group”? Where do they come from, and to whom or what do they owe their status? This was the focus of A Spokesperson Said; and the frustration with these often arbitrarily appointed leaders was evident in many of the guests’ submissions.

Most commonly, you get on to somebody’s list — a journalist, or a producer who needs to find a commentator on this or that topic. If you are willing and able, then your name will rise up that list, and, before you know it, you are the go-to opinionista. Thus, Delroy Hibbert has become the third most sought-after by the media on issues of race in Bristol. Surely there must be a more democratic method of harnessing expertise? Not, one imagines, without time and effort, neither of which is in plenteous supply in the mainstream media.

This takes us back to the University of Cardiff’s School of Journalism, where, in the preamble to an interview with Professor Richard Sambrook, we heard a snippet of a lecture on impartiality. Curiously, this was a topic that failed to make it into either programme.

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